Swiss style made in Italy
By Davide Fornari

20 April 2023


Graphic Design Across the Border

Issue 1.1


Swiss Graphic Design and Italian Graphic Design

This text is an updated version of the essay Swiss Style Made in Italy: Graphic Design across the Border, published in Mapping Graphic Design History in Switzerland, edited by Robert Lzicar and Davide Fornari, Triest Verlag, Zurich 2016. The relationships between Swiss and Italian graphic design have already been explored, 1. Richter 2007; Richter 2014. even though a number of figures and archives have only been partially investigated. The exhibitions held in 2012–2013 at the Triennale di Milano (TDM5: Grafica Italiana) and at the Museum für Gestaltungin Zurich (100 Jahre Schweizer Grafik / 100 Years of Swiss Graphic Design) represent two milestones in the history of 20th-century Italian and Swiss graphic design. In some cases, the exhibitions echoed each other: same authors and, in several cases, identical projects. The Milan exhibition welcomed visitors with quotations by two Swiss authors: Jan Tschichold and Lora Lamm. The Zurich exhibition featured some iconic works created for Italian design brands, such as the illustrations by Lora Lamm for Pirelli, as examples of Swiss graphics. What is Swiss graphic design and what is Italian graphic design, then?

The two curatorial groups had two different approaches to defining the problem. Barbara Junod and Karin Gimmi intended to prove through the exhibition at Museum für Gestaltung that Swiss graphic design’s excellent reputation is the result of its conceptual strength, precise implementation, formal reduction to the bare essentials, and careful execution, all of which prove the designers’ solid educational background and professional experience. 2. This definition is taken from the curatorial statement of the exhibition 100 Jahre Schweizer Grafik; see Brändle et al. 2014. Giorgio Camuffo, Mario Piazza and Carlo Vinti, on the other hand, had to face the extent of the landscape to explore, both in terms of the number of authors and artefacts and due to the limited number of studies on Italian graphic design. They chose to discuss the origins or antecedents of modern Italian graphics: typography (from Manuzio to Bodoni); posters (with authors such as Dudovich and Cappiello); Futurism and its revolutionary struggle that also involved graphics; the influence of Rationalism in the recognition of graphic design as a discipline and the cultural role of graphic designers. Behind the exhibition in Milan was the relationship between Italian designers and the international culture of graphics, with the flux of Italian designers moving abroad, as well as foreign designers coming to Italy. 3. Camuffo, Piazza and Vinti 2012: 18–33; Hollis 2014: 138–146.

What was most striking in both shows was the overlapping of Swiss authors with “Italian” works, such as the poster by Lora Lamm Pirelli per lo scooter (1959), and the fact that the exhibition in Milan did not feature works by Swiss authors for Italian clients that had a significant impact on the public at the time, such as the project by Lora Lamm for the exhibition on Japan hosted at La Rinascente department store in 1956. 4. Santi Gualteri 2003: 11.

Clockwise, from the centre: Lora Lamm (Italy), Pirelli per lo scooter (Pirelli for the scooter), advertisement, 31.7 × 23.8 cm (1959); Lora Lamm (Italy), La Rinascente / Il Giappone, invitation to the exhibition, 16 × 16 cm (1956), offset lithograph, printed by Riboldi, Italy, photography by Serge Libiszewski); Max Huber, 500 Miglia di Monza (500 Miles of Monza), poster, 66 × 46.5 cm (1957), offset lithograph, printer unknown, Italy). Projects featured in the catalogues of the exhibitions Zürich-Milano (2007), 100 Jahre Schweizer Grafik / 100 Years of Swiss Graphic Design (2012), TDM5: Grafica Italiana (2012). Photo by Nicolas Polli

The poster by Max Huber for 500 Miglia di Monza (1957) included in the exhibition Zürich–Milano  – where Hans Höger described Huber as a designer who could hardly be classified as Swiss – and in TDM5 in Milan, was not featured in 100 Jahre Schweizer Grafik, whose aim was to celebrate Swiss graphic design. 5. Höger 2007: 42.

There is no doubt that since the 1930s, Italian and Swiss graphic design have established intense relationships, hand in hand with the cultural relations between the two countries. But while historical and critical attention for Swiss graphic design has grown over time, partly due to the very high quality achieved by the Swiss Style, or “International Typographic Style,” “a carefully detailed history of Italian graphics has still to be written.” 6. Anceschi 1981: n.p. We can also ascribe Swiss authors active in Italy within this unbalanced historiographical landscape. Through time they have gained increasing critical and institutional attention, as monographic studies and exhibitions on the works by Max Huber, Lora Lamm, Serge Libiszewski, Bruno Monguzzi demonstrate. There is however a large number of designers active in Italy, who deserve further study, such as Imre Reiner, Xanti Schawinsky, Carlo Vivarelli, Walter Ballmer, Aldo Calabresi, Ruedi Külling, Gerhard Forster, Felix Humm, Alberto Bianda and many more.

In a monographic issue of the magazine Progetto Grafico the curators scanned the field of Italian graphic design with observations that can be easily extended to the Swiss scene: 7. Vinti and Dalla Mura 2013. so far, the history of graphic design in Italy has followed an approach to “figures” or “pioneers,” borrowed from studies on visual arts, or endo-disciplinary, typical of histories written by professionals within a practice-based design education, with the risk of being incomplete (omitting minor figures) and at the same time repeating already known formulas based on secondary sources compiled by the same authors for exhibitions of graphic design projects.

Concerning the relationship between Italy and the international context, the most common critical opinion is that the “Milanese School” or “Italian school” was born thanks to hybridisation between the Italian and Swiss graphic scene. “The arrival of Swiss designers in Italy, on the Zurich–Milan axis, has often been seen in terms of a successful marriage between a kind of functional and calculated Swiss prose and an Italian impromptu poetic vein,” writes the Italian design historian Carlo Vinti, “seen variously as resting on the balance, tension or interweaving of Nordic austerity and Mediterranean exuberance, between the mathematical order of the Swiss and the typically Italian liking for experimenting freely.” 8. Vinti 2013: 28. The intertwining of Swiss rigour and Italian playfulness is a returning issue in the description of works by many Swiss graphic designers active in Italy (Huber, Calabresi) and, as Vinti rightly puts it, “the picture becomes far more complex and nuanced,” 9. Ibidem. while the current opinion seems to be the result of two simplifications or prejudices that put Swiss and Italian graphic traditions on opposite ends of a virtual field of graphic design.

Richard Hollis has in fact highlighted that “there is no precise location for the origin of an International Style in graphics”: 10. Hollis 2012. It is rooted in abstract painting, Cubism, the Modern Movement, Soviet Constructivism, posters by avant-garde authors such as El Lissitzky, Moholy-Nagy, Depero, Tschichold. The Second World War caused a disruption in the development of the avant-gardes in Europe, and an International Style emerged in the field of graphic design, reaching Italy through Switzerland and, at the same time, the United States of America. Swiss and Italian graphic designers observed each other through professional magazines and international exhibitions, as Hollis has proved with precise examples. 11. Ibidem.

The significant presence of Swiss graphic designers in Italy was interpreted in different ways: on one hand, the geopolitical situation between the two world wars led to forced migrations and an impoverishment in cultural conditions both in Italy and Switzerland, with a decided improvement after the Second World War in Italy, which became the place to be for a large number of professionals who had to cope with the crisis. 12. Georgi and Minnetti 2011: 11–13. This motivation had different degrees of urgency and necessity, according to individual cases. It is also important to highlight “the potential of a city like Milan. Apart from its cultural vitality, it offered financial opportunities and above all the chance to work for a number of major companies”: 13. Vinti 2013: 30. Olivetti, Pirelli, Illy, and many others. Moreover, the presence of an internationally acclaimed agency, such as the one founded by Antonio Boggeri, was an attraction for more than one generation of Swiss graphic designers. 14. Polano e Vetta 2003: 145-146.

The Italian Context: Poster Design and Futurism

As the curators of the Milan exhibition pointed out, Italian graphic design could count on several specific assets: traditional typography and poster design. 15. Grignani 1988. In Italy, as in many other European countries, the production of goods had been deeply influenced by the Industrial Revolution and by the availability of products at lower prices, opening up the market to the middle class. During the 19th century, the need for advertising products and the invention of chromolithography (1837), a lithographic printing technique that allowed oil painting colours to be reproduced, led to the diffusion of poster design and to the birth of Italian cartellonistica (poster design).

The link between Italian intellectuals and advertising became stronger from the beginning of the 20th century: Gabriele D’Annunzio invented a the name for the Milan-based department store La Rinascente, Giacomo Puccini set to music an advertisement for toothpaste, and such artists as Leonetto Cappiello and Marcello Dudovich, whose background was in painting, created an advertising genre that, with a low-literate audience, exploited the image using allegoric figures to promote mass-produced goods.

Futurists joined the scene with their experimental parole in libertà (words in freedom). Jan Tschichold writes in his Die neue Typographie: “It is to a ‘non-technician,’ the Italian poet F.T. Marinetti, the founder of Futurism, that the credit must be given for providing the curtain-raiser for the change-over from ornamental to functional typography.” 16. Tschichold 2006: 53. He continues by quoting the entire manifesto on the typographic revolution and free and expressive orthography. 17. Ibidem: 53-56; Bove 2009. What Tschichold appreciates most in a composition by Marinetti (Lettre d’une jolie femme à un monsieur passéiste) is the optical impact and the visual strength of the typographical choices, disconnected from the concept of form, aesthetics and decoration.

Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, Lettre d’une jolie femme à un monsieur passéiste, on the pages of Les mots en liberté futuristes, Edizioni Futuriste di “Poesia”, Milan 1919. Photo by Vincent Levrat / ECAL

Two key figures for Italian graphic design can be linked to the second wave of Futurism: Bruno Munari and Franco Grignani, who both worked closely with Swiss graphic designers in Milan. 18. On the relationships between Franco Grignani and the Second Futurism, see Anceschi 2014: 21–35. On Munari and the Second Futurism, see: Hulten 1986: 526; Meneguzzo 1993: 33; Colizzi 2011.

The quotation on Futurism by Tschichold contrasts the idea of an Italian context that was “culturally backward” compared to the international debate: Milan was “fully abreast of the developments of typographical modernism, with passionate battles being waged in its name” 19. Vinti 2013: 30. which would end up in the debate on modern graphic design triggered by the magazine Campo Grafico, founded in 1933. 20. Fioravanti, Passarelli and Sfligiotti 1997: 74–75.

Anceschi 1981
Giovanni Anceschi, “Italian Graphics: History and Problems”, in Rassegna, 6, 1981, n.p.
Anceschi 2014
Giovanni Anceschi, Optico-mental alterations, in Leo Guerra, Cristina Quadrio Curzio and Manuela Grignani, edited by, Franco Grignani. Alterazioni ottico mentali 1929-1999, Fondazione Gruppo Credito Valtellinese, Sondrio 2014, pp. 36–51.
Bove 2009
Giovanni Bove, Scrivere futurista. La rivoluzione tipografica tra scrittura e immagine, Edizioni Nuova Cultura, Rome 2009.
Brändle et al. 2014
Christian Brändle et al., edited by, 100 Years of Swiss Graphic Design, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich 2014.
Camuffo, Piazza and Vinti 2012
Giorgio Camuffo, Mario Piazza and Carlo Vinti, edited by, TDM5: Grafica Italiana, Corraini, Mantua 2012.
Colizzi 2011
Alessandro Colizzi, Bruno Munari and the Invention of Modern Graphic Design in Italy, 1928–1945, doctoral thesis, Universiteit Leiden NL 2011.
Fioravanti, Passarelli and Sfligiotti
Giorgio Fioravanti, Leonardo Passarelli and Silvia Sfligiotti, edited by, La grafica in Italia, Leonardo Arte, Milan 1997.

Fornari 2016
Davide Fornari, Swiss Style Made in Italy: Graphic Design across the Border, in Robert Lzicar and Davide Fornari, edited by, Mapping Graphic Design History in Switzerland, Triest Verlag, Zurich 2016, pp. 152–180.

Georgi and Minnetti 2011
William Georgi and Tommaso Minnetti, edited by, Italian Design is Coming Home. To Switzerland, Polyedra-Actar, Oftringen-Barcelona 2011.
Grignani 1988
Franco Grignani, Cominciarono i cartellonisti, in Heinz Waibl, edited by, Alle radici della comunicazione visiva italiana, Centro di cultura grafica, Como 1988, pp. 11–17.
Höger 2007
Hans Höger, Unity in Diversity: Social and Cultural Development in Milan 1945–1970, in Bettina Richter, edited by, Zürich–Milano, Lars Müller Publishers, Baden 2007, pp. 38–43.

Hollis 2012
Richard Hollis, The International Style and Italian Graphic Design, in Giorgio Camuffo, Mario Piazza and Carlo Vinti, edited by, TDM5: Grafica Italiana, Corraini, Mantua 2012, pp. 34–41.
Hollis 2014
Richard Hollis, Graphic Design. A Concise History, Thames & Hudson, London 2014.
Hulten 1986
Pontus Hulten, edited by, Futurismo & Futurismi, Bompiani, Milan 1986.
Meneguzzo 1993
Marco Meneguzzo, Bruno Munari, Laterza, Rome-Bari 1993.
Polano and Vetta 2003
Sergio Polano and Pierpaolo Vetta, Abecedario. La grafica del Novecento, Electa, Milan 2003.
Richter 2007
Bettina Richter, edited by, Zürich-Milano, Lars Müller Publishers, Baden 2007.
Richter 2014
Bettina Richter, Zurich-Milan. Zurich and Milan Circa 1950: Contrasting Mental States, in Christian Brändle et al., edited by, 100 Years of Swiss Graphic Design, Lars Müller Publishers, Zurich 2014, pp. 137–143.
Santi Gualteri 2003
Franca Santi Gualteri, A Trip through Italian Design, Corraini, Mantua 2003.
Tschichold 2006
Jan Tschichold, The New Typography. A Handbook for Modern Designers, University of California Press, Berkeley 2006.
Vinti 2013
Carlo Vinti, Lora Lamm’s “Third Way” to the Corporate Image, in Lora Lamm, Nicoletta Ossanna Cavadini, edited by, Lora Lamm. Graphic Design in Milan 1953-1963, Silvana, Cinisello Balsamo 2013, pp. 28–39.

Vinti and Dalla Mura 2013
Carlo Vinti and Maddalena Dalla Mura, edited by, “Grafica, Storia, Italia,” monographic issue of Progetto Grafico, 24, Autumn 2013.

Davide Fornari is a full professor at ECAL/University of Art and Design Lausanne (HES-SO), where he has led the Research and Development sector since 2016. He teaches at SUPSI in Mendrisio and at Design Academy Eindhoven. He is a member of the Federal design commission of the Swiss Federal office of Culture.
Among his publications: Mapping Graphic Design History in Switzerland (Triest verlag, Zurich 2016), Carlo Scarpa. Casa Zentner a Zurigo: una villa italiana in Svizzera (Electa, Milan 2020), Swiss Graphic Design Histories (Scheidegger & Spiess, Zurich 2021), Olivetti Identities. Spaces and Languages 1933–1983 (Triest verlag, Zurich 2022).